Rosalynde Defines Mormon Art

Rosalynde Welch, with her characteristic intelligence, has laid down a concise, cogent, and challenging explanation of why American Mormon authors tend to congregate in “genre” categories, like science-fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, or some combination thereof, rather than pursue “serious literary fiction”:

Mormon culture values the superior performance of shared forms over originality of artistic vision. I’m using “performance” here to mean an affirmative partaking of a traditionally-valued form, without irony or subversion. Most Mormon contributions to American popular culture fall firmly within this category….The experience of powerful identification and unity with the faith community is central to our religious practice, and we love to build (occasionally kludgy) institutions, programs, domestic rituals, and community events that facilitate that experience: think of Family Home Evening, road shows, testimony meetings, Girls Camp, firesides. To read a novel in which a familiar narrative structure is affirmed and shared among readers and between author and audience is to reproduce that powerful experience of communal identification and unity within a discursive institution. What this means is that most Mormon literature can be defined right out of the category of “literary fiction,” which privileges individual vision, subversive irony, and an alienated perspective. For the Mormon writer, by contrast, it is precisely the accessibility of the genres that makes them successful cultural figures for an affirmative performance….Mormon writers embrace received forms through the superior performance of the same to affirm a cultural ethos of communal partaking. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if the love interest takes off his shirt now and then.

I don’t think this is anything like a truly new insight, but it is a well-stated insight all the same. And, to those of a critical bent, like myself, it poses a challenge, especially since Rosalynde’s whole aim in the linked essay is to suggest answers to the sorts of questions which critics ask: whether any Mormon writers have “devised new unique artistic forms from their religious milieu,” and, if not, whether Mormon artists “demonstrate a characteristic relationship to inherited literary genres.” Her answers, pretty definitively, are, first, no, Mormons as a whole have not developed any unique artistic forms, and shouldn’t be expected to any time soon, and second, yes, Mormons, due to our “communitarian ethos and homely ritual practices,” absolutely are going commitment ourselves to working in established, well-defined genres. Kind of puts a new spin on the whole, hoary, “Where are our Shakespeares?” question, doesn’t it? The more reasonable question, Rosalynde suggests, is “Who are our Stephen Kings, Larry Nivens, Tony Hillermans, Terry Pratchetts, and Jude Devereauxs?”

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    I’d settle for a Pratchett.

  2. Matt W. says:

    When I see things like this, I have to ask, who is currently doing “serious literary fiction”?

    Anyone?

  3. Amongst living writers, I suppose John Irving, Ian McEwan, A.S. Byatt, Margartet Atwood, Marilynn Robinson, E. L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Russo, etc., would fit the bill.

  4. Wraith of Blake says:

    How will some LDS author ever become capitalized/hyphenated as S-E-R-I-O-U-S? Well, who’s done this capitalization and hyphenization in the past? In the case of that William Shak(e)spe(a)r(e) dude, he actually was NOT any heavy, S-E-R-I-O-U-S poet/dramatist within his own age and time at all. Rather, he was then this campy writer of oftentimes very funny stuff that kept the middlebrow people reasonably happy in the surrounding pit and yet was also respected by other literary guys for the superlative craft and creativity with which he did his, yes, genre of stuff. Thus it’s just possible the best way for current and well-known genre authors who happen to be Mormon to remain known influential and important during some future era will to be to continue to please the audience they have now and not worry so much on wowwing the current directors of the IA Writer’s Workshop.

  5. Wraith of Blake says:

    I.e., it was not the 1690s but the 1760s when Shak(e)spe(a)r(e) became added to the shelf of “classic literature” of early modern English. By Mr. Samual Johnson–essentially the carpenter who first installed a shelf with a brass plaque on it with that designation in his library.

  6. Wraith of Blake says:

    Erratum – …1590s…

  7. Not that I’ve read it, but how would “The Lonely Polygamist” fit in? From what I’ve read about it the book sounds far more like a foray into serious literary fiction rather than any sort of genre book. Am I mistaken about either the genre or the seriousness of that novel?

  8. #7: I was actually going to suggest Udall’s “Lonely Polygamist” as an example of serious literary fiction, but being that it wasn’t nominated for any of the Mormon fiction awards seems to imply that many don’t consider it Mormon literature. I’d argue that older authors like Virginia Sorensen and Maureen Whipple would apply to, but perhaps the fact that none of these three authors are sold in Deseret Book should be telling.

  9. Kristine and Ben–

    I think that, if Rosalynde wanted to follow through on her claim (and I don’t know why she wouldn’t), she would argue the following:

    1) The fact that Brady Udall, as a Mormon (he proudly identifies himself as such, but also doesn’t pretend to be much of a believer) and a writer who has successfully pursued serious literary fiction, is pretty unusual, perhaps even unique, amongst his co-religionists is evidence in support of her point.

    2) The whole hunt for “Mormon literature” that the AML supposedly encourages and Deseret Books supposedly validates is silly, because Mormons aren’t interested in creating their own style of literature; they’re going to stick to genres, and happily so.

  10. RAF, one potential (throw-away) inference from Rosalynde’s argument might be that if there is, ever, going to be ‘Mormon Literature’ that it might come from those places where Mormon communities are mostly fractured and transient, and where this type of American-Mormon community ethic is not as readily accessible, i.e. might it come from international Mormons.

  11. britt k says:

    Is she really saying it has to be general fiction to be serious?

    I like Mull and Card.

    Does her article imply that Lord of the Rings isn’t serious because it’s fantasy? Is Austen all Romance then? not serious at all because we can put it in this other category?

    So Assimov’s science fiction isn’t serious?

    20,000 leagues under the sea is too science fictiony I bet.

  12. Aaron, I think that’s a good observation: as the church continues to rely upon technology and other forms of bureaucratic streamlining as it globalizes, the “communitarian ethos” she mentions just can’t be quite the same, or quite as strong, in certain international locales or cosmopolitan centers. Thus, according to Rosalynde’s logic, it might be reasonable to expect that, if Mormonism truly takes root and flourishes in such places, then in time you might see a real style of “Mormon literary fiction” develop as well.

    Britt, read her piece, and the comments in the discussion under it; she never says that only literary fiction is “serious,” nor is she in any way critical of “genre fiction.” On the contrary, she embraces it as a legitimate, important way for the artistic impulse to express itself. Her point about genres is far more about structure than about content, whether “serious” or otherwise.

  13. #8

    I was actually going to suggest Udall’s “Lonely Polygamist” as an example of serious literary fiction, but being that it wasn’t nominated for any of the Mormon fiction awards seems to imply that many don’t consider it Mormon literature.

    The Lonely Polygamist won the Association for Mormon Letters Award for best novel.

    http://www.aml-online.org/Awards/Award.aspx?id=1684

  14. Kristine says:

    I think there’s a much easier explanation. Making great art is hard. 200 years isn’t very long. 12 million is a small talent pool.

  15. britt k says:

    I read it and the comments, before I commented the first time. and didn’t come up with what she meant by serious fiction. It seems she agrees that genre fiction isn’t serious and should be in some measure disparaged.

    It just sounds to me like she is saying Card isn’t creative because he writes science ficiton.

    I just disagree with some things she takes for granted.

  16. britt k says:

    Original v communal doesn’t completely make sense to me. Which is the Mona Lisa? Originality can be very uniting.

    perhaps I’m just not understanding her.

  17. #9 “The whole hunt for “Mormon literature” that the AML supposedly encourages and Deseret Books supposedly validates is silly, because Mormons aren’t interested in creating their own style of literature; they’re going to stick to genres, and happily so.”

    First, in the interest of further propagating the silliness: the submission deadline for Irreantum’s literary contests is May 31. (Irreantum is the AML’s literary magazine.) This year we’re offering awards in three genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. You can check out the rules here: http://irreantum.mormonletters.org/Rules.aspx. Over the years I’ve been pleased to see the quantity and quality of our contest submissions continue to increase. There are a number of very talented writers who are interested in exploring Mormon themes through literature, and I hope some members of the BCC community submit.

    Also, the AML and Deseret Book have different aims. While it’s true that the AML is interested in encouraging the creation and consumption of Mormon literature, Deseret Book is more interested in selling Mormons what they want to buy. DB realizes that most Mormon readers want to “stick to genres,” so that’s what they publish and promote in their bookstores. In my experience, DB has very little interest in “validating” anyone’s desire to promote Mormon Literature With a Capital L, although some of the genre stuff they’ve published has been pretty good, especially YA lit through their Shadow Mountain imprint.

    As far as Rosalynde’s original post is concerned, while I agree with her in many respects, I feel that “literary fiction” is just as much a genre as science fiction, with its own set of rules and expectations. I don’t think Mormons avoid writing literary fiction (“serious fiction”? “contemporary realistic fiction for adults?” The genre label is slippery) because they prefer working within a more rule-bound system. I think it’s because the expectations that the genre does impose are ones that make many Mormons feel uncomfortable: a certain nihilism, a lack of resolution, the exploration of what one might call “adult themes.” Also, as Kristine said, making great art is hard. Within any community, there are only a handful of people who can do it well.

    I also disagree with the subtitle of Rosalynde’s piece, “What is it with Mormons and trashy genre fiction?” Mormons generally don’t write a lot of “trashy” stuff, no matter the genre, and some of those Mormons who are writing in YA or fantasy or other genres are doing really excellent work. We shouldn’t turn our noses up at Hale or Card or Mull or Sanderson. They are artists, and successful ones to boot.

    But as far as literary fiction goes? You’re right that we don’t have a lot of novelists, although The Lonely Polygamist is one of the best contemporary literary novels I’ve ever read. I’d argue that much of our community’s very best literary fiction can be found in the genre of the short story, and many of these stories wind up in Irreantum, as well as in Dialogue and Sunstone. Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction is a great resource if you’re interested in the genre.

  18. Eric Russell says:

    What Kristine said, but it gets even easier. Genre fiction makes money, literary fiction doesn’t. All the would-be literary Mormon writers chose instead to go to law school or business school, are in the Bishopric or RS presidency and are raising a family. This reduces the potential talent pool dramatically further and essentially frustrates any ability to make broader claims about the types of literature that Mormons are or aren’t interested in writing.

  19. britt k says:

    angela H…Thank you for saying some of what I was attempting to say.

  20. To me, it has appeared easiest for deeply devoted religious people to work within the most imaginative genres, however counter-intuitive that may seem. (Dante’s investigations into the after-life were mere genre-bound conventional reflections.) It could be argued that Sci-Fi/Fantasy are relatively new genres, and therefore, with relatively little weight of convention holding them back, as it were. Charles Williams–one of the Inkling’s “writers’ workshop,” through whom which we trace back the development of Sci-Fi, post Wells/Verne–worked in the middle area between Tolkien’s fantasy and CS Lewis’s Sci-Fi. Like Spain/Portugal the two had divided the fantastic world between them–Tolkien interested in time travel; Lewis in space travel. Williams called his own intermediate place/genre “supernatural thriller”–of fantastic things taking place in the “here and now.” This is the space which I see to be most fruitfully harvested by Mormon fictionalists. For example, I refer to two brilliant short pieces: Roger Terry’s “Eternal Misfits” in Dialogue Fall 2010, and David Pace’s hot off the press, “American Trinity” in Dialogue summer 2011. I would be hard-pressed to confine either of those to any particular conventional genre.

  21. erratum: Dante’s reflection were NOT etc.

  22. Katya (#13): Thanks for pointing that out; I had forgotten about AML. I was thinking more along the lines of the Whitney Awards. Great catch!

  23. Angela (#17), you write, in response to Rosalynde’s observations about the relative paucity of Mormon artists who attempt their hand at literary fiction (which I completely agree is also “genre” in every sense of the term), as opposed to other genres like horror or romance or science fiction are, that:

    I think it’s because the expectations that the genre does impose are ones that make many Mormons feel uncomfortable: a certain nihilism, a lack of resolution, the exploration of what one might call “adult themes.”

    But in what sense does that comment dissent from Rosalynde’s claim that Mormons generally seek works of art that “reproduce [the] powerful experience of communal identification and unity [with our] discursive institution”? She may be using a language of structure, while you’re using a language of content, but it seems to me you’re actually agreeing with her: the kind of experimentalism and critique which the bulk of Mormon authors seek is likely not going to be the kind of experimentalism and critique that issues in certain reliable aspects of the modern condition, such as alienation, irresolution, amorality, or doubt. Of course you can, and do, have amoral vampires, alienated warriors, irresolute lovers, and doubtful pioneers in stories by Mormon writers, but stories that are build around certain conceits of fantasy or history, unlike the case in the literary genre, provide a place for such characters, as opposed to allowing their experience to become the theme of the story as a whole. Hence, her claim, and yours too, that Mormons (or I suppose I should say, remembering Aaron’s comment above, American Mormons up until the present time) are just likely to be drawn to some genres over others.

  24. Russell (#23), you make a good point. I read her descriptor of literary fiction as a genre that promotes “individual vision” as saying that literary fiction is somehow freer from the constraints of genre expectations, but I can see upon rereading how we’re agreeing more than we disagree. It is true, though, that lit fic is broadly stereotyped as being without genre constraints, so I was speaking to that overarching assumption as well.

    Interestingly, I think that many Mormons, especially those who like to read fiction, understand what literary fiction is supposed to be. They know the expectations of the genre. When Rosalynde says that Mormons like “familiar narrative structure [that] is affirmed and shared among readers and between author and audience,” my response is that a large and vital subgroup of Mormons are quite adept at dealing with “literary fiction.” After all, these novels are what we read in high school and college; these novels are the subjects of our essays and papers, the ones we learn to dissect and discuss. Thousands of Mormons (granted, mostly women) all over the world participate in book groups and engage critically with these texts.

    But (and this is a big but) Mormon readers are much more comfortable reading literary fiction written by non-Mormons. Many members will happily discuss Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, despite the sex/violence/language/gloom that appear in these novels. But Mormon readers are much less comfortable with Mormon writers approaching material this way, and Mormon writers know that they might be rejected by their community if they write about such things as well.

    It’s not that Mormons don’t know how to deal with literary fiction. It’s that they don’t know how to deal with Mormons writing literary fiction — and Mormon writers don’t know how to deal with this response, either. Generally speaking, of course.

  25. That’s an interestingly meta point, Angela: that the issue which Rosalynde is discussing really boils down to Mormon writers being uncomfortable with Mormon readers who are uncomfortable with Mormon writers writing uncomfortable literary fiction (for Mormons?). Lot of discomfort and misunderstanding, there.

  26. Good point Angela (and Russell). It’s interesting how often that’s been a topic over at the AML mailing list.

  27. “Who are our Stephen Kings, Larry Nivens, …?”

    FYI, at one point in Larry Niven’s short story “Convergent Series”, the protagonist is trying to find the Mormon temple in Los Angeles. To say anything else would be a spoiler.

  28. Levi Peterson? I gather he’s identifying less and less as a Mormon, but The Backslider is a very Mormon book. And even if it doesn’t create a new Mormon artistic form, it certainly has a uniquely, honestly Mormon voice to it. Also Virginia Sorensen. But I’m not as familiar with the current roster of Mormon fiction writers — really devout Mormons writing “difficult” fiction would be remarkable. Or maybe not. Maybe Mormonism’s contribution to the Great Dialogue will ultimately be the idea that True Ultimate Reality is so absurdly, mindbendingly grand that only sci-fi/fantasy genre fiction can capture it? :)

  29. Wraith of Blake says:

    W/regard to Levi P. and B. Udall…and to–

    Brent: it has appeared easiest for deeply devoted religious people to work within the most imaginative genres[.... (]Dante’s investigations into the after-life were mere genre-bound conventional reflections.) It could be argued that Sci-Fi/Fantasy are relatively new genres, and therefore, with relatively little weight of convention holding them back, as it were. Charles Williams[...]worked in the middle area between Tolkien’s fantasy and CS Lewis’s Sci-Fi.

    __ __ __

    Brent’s observation/concept that Tolkien worked in(/created) the modern fantasy genre because he was devoutly Roman Catholic (etc.) maybe suggests a path to generalize Rosalynde Welch’s and Angela H.’s analyses about LDS people-and-genre choice in a way for it to apply to devout people in general and genre choice.

  30. Rosalynde says:

    Thanks so much, Russell, for highlighting the column and adding your thoughts. And thanks for the great discussion in the comments. Sorry I haven’ t been involved earlier.

    Lots of good points made here, and I will add that William Morris had an excellent response in the comments at Patheos.

    I’ll just respond to three criticisms — first Angela’s objection to the word “trashy” in the piece’s slug. I suppose it was mostly a cynical bid to get folks to click through from the Patheos front page! Mormon genre fiction is rarely vulgar or tasteless, to its credit. Genre fiction per se is — from the perspective of literary fiction — trashy merely in the sense that it is not high art, but as I hope was clear in the piece I myself don’t share that perspective.

    That leads into a second point regarding literary fiction as a genre just as rulebound as any other. I suppose that I disagree, from a purely formal perspective, that literary fiction is as tied to conventional forms as so-called genre fic; I think it really does have license to push the formal envelope in ways that would be unpalatable to many genre readers. That is, I do think that genre fiction, more than literary fiction, works by activating and fulfilling (sometimes in new or surprising ways, of course) audience expectation. (When it comes to theme, of course, literary fiction has its own rather tired stable of pop alienation, irony, angst, and subversion that has, indeed, become predictable.)

    Whether or not that makes genre fiction inherently inferior to literary fiction is, of course, entirely a question of history. To be clear: I don’t hold genre fiction to be intrinsically less valuable than literary fiction. But that’s because I don’t really accept the claims that “Art”—as it has defined itself in modern and post-modern culture — makes on its own behalf, over and against mere “ideology.” The romantic cult of the prophetic artistic vision of the outsider is itself an ideologeme just as historically situated as any vampire novel.

  31. Rosalynde says:

    I just noticed that I used the phrase “of course” about twenty times. On the upside, I only used two sets of parentheses and five m-dashes.

  32. Rosalynde, do you actually read much genre fiction?

  33. britt k says:

    It wasn’t at all clear to me that you didn’t think that genre fiction was “less” or why any but the snootiest would think that. I get that there exists trashy science fiction and fantasy (See the covers of many)…but if you actual open the books and read them… they’re good.

    off to read the ever trashy 2001 before my son does

  34. S.P. Bailey says:

    The essential distinction on which R’s article relies, “serious literary fiction” vs. “trashy genre,” is fairly artificial for a variety of reasons already identified by others. Still, I suppose it is interesting to speculate on why Mormons are more successful in the latter.

    My theory: so-called “serious literary fiction” is not actually better, higher, or more serious, but it is more respectable in the eyes of certain cultural elites. And Mormons are outsiders, cultural riff-raff, who generally do not get and therefore do not bother seeking much approval or encouragement from such elites.

    No disrespect to Orson F. Whitney (and Mormon culture extreme optimists everywhere), but I think it is high time Mormons get over feeling sorry about this lack of respectability/cultural elite status.

    What is better: telling quality stories (“genre” or not) that many thousands of people actually read? Or publishing “serious literary fiction” in some stuffy journal with tons of respectability and a circulation of a few hundred dusty academic libraries? Our best Mormon authors have the chops to go the respectable route, but Mormon culture (western culture in general!?) is richer because most of them have not.

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